Saturday, September 08, 2012

Coursera Plagiarism Deniers

I am bloody tired of those people on the forums who are reiterating that there is no plagiarism.  I find them almost as annoying as those who are casually and erroneously accusing others of plagiarism.  I am also not going to discuss this on the forums because I am not going to invite abuse from the deniers.  To that end, I am offering the two essays I received, preceded by the links to where the original text can be found.

You tell me that I am witch-hunting and trying to find plagiarism where there is none and I'll dismiss you as a denier.  These are obviously what they are and anyone who cannot see the obvious isn't ready for an upper level undergraduate English course.

I have changed nothing from either essay.  These are copied here as they were submitted to me for peer-review.

Not only is our wisdom not total, there is yet much to be learned from others.
The perfect unit for displaying such instinct and insight is what is called "culture," a much contested term that is generally taken to gloss the well bound containers of coherence that mark off different kinds of people living in their ways, each kind separated from the others by a particular way of making sense and meaning.
In The Country of the Blind, a One-eyed Man is confused and confusing. That is what it is like to be in another culture. With time, had he been a decent person, he could have learned their ways well enough to write about their particular version of wisdom.
Culture is not so much a product of sharing as a product of people hammering each other into shape with the well structured tools already available. Culture is seen as a process of hammering a world in H. G Well’s novel.
When culture is understood as the knowledge people need for living with each other, it is easy to adapt to surroundings. Before entering the Country of the Blind, Nunez thought that sight was essential to being fully cultured and that having sight in a world of people who cannot see would net him the cultural capital of a King. He was arrogant. Did Nunez really have to be locked so thoroughly out of the culture of those who could not see? Need we think that the Country of the Blind had only one way to be, or that the blind and the sighted had to suffer because of an enculturated difference?
In the Country of the Blind even a blind woman can be made disabled. In every society, there are ways of being locked out because culture is seen as a disability.

The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells is a science fiction classic written in 1897. The novel was first serialized in Pearson’s Weekly the same year it was published.
Griffin is a scientist who devotes himself to the field of optics. While working in his research Griffin discovers that he can change the body’s refractive index to absorb all light and reflect none, which makes him invisible. The scientist uses himself as his first experimentation subject but fails to reverse the process. After his friend betrays him, Griffin decided to murder him and begins his own personal “reign of terror”. What if what you consider a blessing is also a curse? The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells touches on this very same question. How many of us wouldn’t like to be invisible? That’s what the protagonist, Griffin, thought when he became invisible only to find it to be the bane of his existence. Yes, there are some positives aspects, but H.G. Wells concentrates mostly on the negative ones.
I thought Wells did a good job building up the atmosphere that is prominent throughout the story. Actually, the atmosphere is the star of the book as none of the characters resonated with me and the storyline, which mainly consisted of wrecking havoc for havoc’s sake, was not very inspired. The story itself is also quite funny, I thought and many of the scenes played in my mind as slapstick.
The Invisible Man is the ultimate story of an insane anti-hero, before insane anti-heroes became popular. Griffin himself becomes more and more pathetic as the story progress and from the comical start Wells moves away to a darker, subtle satire of small minds in small towns can be just as dangerous as any psychopath.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Coursera Thoughts Part Five

I vented (ranted, whatever) about the forums in my previous post so here’s where I try to break it down into something useful.  As before, you will find a summarized bullet-point list of the problems and suggested solutions at the bottom of this post.  

The problems, as I see them, include:
  • Leaderboard
  • Organization
  • Anonymous Posting
  • Up/down-Voting

I do not know why or what purpose it is supposed to serve but the coursera staff built into the course a leaderboard.  This doesn’t track your grade as compared with others.  Instead, it says who has received the most up-votes.  In other words, it’s a popularity contest and if you say something nice or something that others like you will be voted up and if they don’t like what you have to say you will be voted down.  Even if you ask a question that has been asked before, you will be voted down.  If you ask a legitimate question that maybe challenges the boundaries of what others want to believe, you will be voted down. 

But what I suspected would happen is happening and some of the more popular people have begun being voted down even when they aren’t saying anything that is, as far as I can tell, deserving of a negative vote.  The truth is, I have no clue where the leaderboard is or what the stats are.  I found it and was so put off by it that I never went back to look for it.  This isn’t a video game and nobody cares nor should care about who is “winning” by getting the best votes.

You can’t imagine how thrilled I was when Blogger finally introduced nesting in the replies.  Now, when I reply to someone, it looks like a reply because it is indented slightly from the original comment.  Imagine, however, that they are not nested.  A person posts something and the first comment looks different but it is not indented because there are two ways of replying.  If you reply directly, your reply doesn’t appear on the forum as having a new comment/reply.  It simply doesn’t register.  You have to leave a comment that isn’t indented at all for it to register on the forum.  And none of those are indented.

So if the first comment receives five “hard” comments, none of those are indented.  Now, if each of those receives four comments, all of them are indented to the same degree, even if the third comment is actually replying to the first comment.  Visually it falls under the second so it will look as though it is in response to either the initiating comment or the one immediately above.  Unless the person typing the comment actually addresses the previous comment/reply with a name included in the content, there is bound to be confusion, right?

What’s worse, you have to factor in posts from a variety of Anonymous people, most of whom do not identify themselves with a pseudonym. 

So open a thread with what you think only has five or six pieces and you actually open one that has about thirty comments and one third of them are anonymous, two or three different ones, maybe or maybe just one person being anonymous over and over and over again . . . well, you can see why it would be somewhat confusing.

Anonymous Posting
I’m not going to address myself further to this because Laura Gibbs wrote about this and my previous post also looks at this.  However, anyone who has been online for any length of time knows what happens when people can hide behind being anonymous and the inevitability of the abuse that quickly follows.  The fact that people are down-voting out of pettiness instead of legitimately addressing harmful or offensive posts with the votes, which is probably why coursera had to add a way to flag posts in the forum.

Up/down Voting
This ties in with both the Leaderboard and Anonymous Posting issues.  It lends itself to a popularity contest and those people who are most liked will be up-voted.  It also lends itself to bullying so that someone perceived as strong will begin being down-voted to keep them humble or put the popular one “in his/her place.”  It’s vulgar and it serves no real purpose.  If I hadn’t seen such things happen so many times before, where a person who is a message board favorite becomes victimized by newbies on the board, I wouldn’t have seen it coming.  But I did.  From a mile away.  It’s vulgar and typical.

So the problems in summary:
  • Leaderboard
  • Organization
  • Anonymous Posting
  • Up/down-Voting

And now for the solutions, which are merely suggestions.

Get rid of it altogether.  Or keep it hidden from the student body.  If there is some administrative purpose for having something like this then it shouldn’t be openly available to the students.  If there is no purpose other than to turn the forums into a popularity contest, get rid of it.

There should be nesting that goes beyond one degree.  All replies to the main post can remain flush left but then there should be at least two degrees of nesting below each of these.  In other words, a reply to a reply to a comment should indent twice. 

Anonymous Posting
Students should be allowed to post pseudonymously but never anonymously.  A student who abuses pseudonymous comments by attacking or belittling another student, would be warned that a second offense would remove pseudonymous posting privileges.   If a student continues to abuse other students, all forum privileges are taken away altogether. 

There are legitimate uses for Anonymous posting.  Therefore, all Anonymous posts will go through a screening or, if an anonymous post is flagged, it will be immediately locked.  Screening would require either staff or a group of student volunteers who will approve any and all Anonymous posting.  This is too labor intensive, however, when you have over 39,000 students.  This is why I suggest using the flagging system.  It’s already in place.  Any anonymous post/comment/reply that is flagged would be immediately locked; a pop-up would simply say “This thread has been locked for review.” 

Any Anonymous post that is flagged and deemed inappropriate would be removed.  The person who posted would receive a warning.  Currently, there are no repercussions beyond having an inappropriate anonymous post removed.  This does nothing to deter the person from doing it as many times as they like in as many threads as they choose.  A warning would presumably keep anyone inclined to abuse the system from doing so. 

There are legitimate reasons for posting things Anonymously and there’s no reason to stop using it altogether.  Adding a pseudonym option gives those who want to remain hidden a way to post, without adding confusion by being one too many anonym while clear limits about how the Anonymous feature can be used would keep it from degenerating into a means of abuse.  This will also keep the discussions on the forums from devolving into sophomoric attacks.
I want to say get rid of it altogether.  I can see no purpose for it.  If you write a good post, people will comment intelligently to it.  If people don’t like a thread, they will either say so or they will flag it, if it is inappropriate.

Last but not least, a suggestion that needs to be implemented and would resolve more than a bit of the above.

Students should have a means to block a particular person, however they post—whether under their own name, pseudonymously, or anonymously.  If I find a post from someone I think is annoying for whatever reason, I don’t have to waste the staff’s time by flagging it or my own by down-voting it.  I can simply block the person.  Now, I am not the type to block someone just because they say one thing I find ridiculous or silly.  But if an anonymous person says a named person needs to “grow up” in response to an intelligent observation about something we are reading, then I can choose to block that anonymous person.  But the person who just posts a single mean-spirited word in reply to even an inane thread, I would probably block that person because if they have time to be mean in an inane thread it’s only a matter of time before they become hostile in a more relevant or provocative thread.

If the staff will not protect the students then I should have the ability to protect myself.  And if, when I block an anonymous person, I end up blocking someone who posts pseudonymously and with their name, then do I really care? 

And yes, I think if any one student is being repeatedly blocked then someone in the staff might want to look at what the student is posting, see if there is a pattern of being rude, inconsiderate, or even mean.  Yes, culturally speaking, online communication may leave too much room for one student to think another is being rude but that doesn’t mean a student should be able to post with impunity.  But even if the staff cannot do anything to stop them, I should have the freedom to cut off an idiot from leaving comments to anything I post, even if I am sometimes just being a petty bitch.

I also have one personal request, a minor issue on the main page of the forums.  At the top of the page are the main folders and, besides each of these, it shows the most recent activity for each folder.  Beneath this are a list of the individual threads with the most recent activity but you can’t immediately tell in which folder some of these appear.  I have more than once accidentally clicked on an intriguing thread subject only to find myself reading a thread about a book I haven’t finished reading or even started reading yet.  If I could have seen where the message thread was filed, I would have seen that it is under the thread for a book that I haven’t even started.   

Problems Summarized:
  • Leaderboard
  • Organization
  • Anonymous posting
  • Up/down-Voting

Solutions Summarized:
  • No leaderboard whatsoever.  Also remove all up/down-voting.
  • Add nesting to the messages.  Also, label all posts on the forum main page with folder information.
  • Update the main forum page to show how many individual comments there are.
  • Anonymous posting should be discouraged.  Allow pseudonymous posting.
  • Abuse of posting to the forums should block posting by that student altogether.
  • Students should have a means to block anyone who posts things they find offensive or annoying.

If the purpose of the forums is to help build community, where there is abuse, spiteful comments, bullying, and anonymous posting, there can be no community.  The internet has been around long enough and these things have shown up often enough on message boards that the staff at coursera absolutely should have known these things can happen.  

Now they need to step up and do whatever it takes to create a safe and healthy learning environment for everyone who registers for a course.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Romanov Had Another Seizure

As part of my ongoing need to track these things, Romanov had a seizure.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Coursera Thoughts Part Four

This week I received two essays which were plagiarized so one can immediately see how well the addition of the Honor Code button is working.  Within the course, there have been a few other changes but, so far, they merely prove that the more things change, the more things stay the same and today I really want to weigh-in on the forums.
When the course first opened up, there was no individual place to discuss each of the units so it wasn’t long before people who were reading ahead were posting threads about Alice in Wonderland mixed in with Grimm’s Fairy Tales and there were a few very ambitious readers posting about Dracula and Frankenstein.  However, the coursera staff stepped up on 25 July and added folders for each unit to reduce the confusion that so many intermingled topics would inevitably create. 
Also, sometime the week before last, they introduced flags.  If someone were to post something that is completely inappropriate, the students can easily flag it and the coursera staff will take care of it.
On 22 August, someone copied and pasted an essay they received for the peer-review which they felt was plagiarized.  Someone immediately posted a comment that quoted from an email we all received when the course began and in this email, Dr. Rabkin wrote the following:
Please remember that the essay belongs to the essayist. None of us has the moral or, under U.S. copyright law, the legal right to post someone else's essay. One does have the right to post a brief  quotation if one is using that "for the purpose of criticism or  review" (again, quoting U.S. copyright law), but one can probably do   just as well with paraphrase. ("In an essay I read, the writer asserted that....") Even if one is praising a fellow participant, lengthy quotes are not legal. On the other hand, it is perfectly legal to post your own essay and invite criticism or use that posting as an opportunity to respond one way or another to a comment made about it.  Whether or not that is a good idea in any given case, I am happy to say, is a choice for each of you.
It took whoever is responsible for monitoring the forums an entire week to delete the post that clearly violated one of the few guidelines we students have received.   A week.  So you can imagine how much longer it takes for them to remove abusive statements, attacks, etc.  I have to imagine because, at this point, I am so put-off by some of the posts I see on the forums that I simply cannot expose myself to them any more than I do.  Reading what I think is a potentially informative thread only to see it degenerate into the sort of juvenile nonsense one finds far too often online is discouraging, to say the least.
(Interestingly, it's happened again today and I am almost curious enough to see how long it will take for the shared essay to be taken down.)
The thing is, what choice do the students, the ones who are taking the course in hopes of learning something?  What are they supposed to do?
The purpose of the forums is to give the students a way to ask questions, to discuss the literature, to perhaps share insights and ideas.  Without a professor to guide the learning experience, the students are given no other recourse.  Yes, we have the video lectures but these are only available after we have finished the assigned reading.  During the time we are reading these texts, the forums should be a safe place where people can let ideas flow without fear of judgment or attacks.
Why do these things happen?  
Simple:  Anonymous posting. 
Now, I want to state up front that there are some people who have chosen to use the ability to post anonymously to good purpose.  Some have even cleverly created a pseudonymous signature to differentiate themselves from all the other anonymous posters.  It is reasonable, when wanting to ask how to deal with an essay that is not in sync with the syllabus, what the reader should do.  If this week’s essay should be on something by Wells and the essay is on Stoker or a book we have not yet reached, how should the peer-reviewer grade the piece?  Or when a student is unhappy with the score they receive for an essay and want to get other people’s opinions, why shouldn’t they be free to submit the essay to the forum with the same anonymity with which the submitted it for peer review?  These students are using the ability to be anonymous in a manner that is appropriate and even respectful of the other students.  I’ve also seen people who could not submit their essays on time, whether because of a technical issue on their end or within coursera itself or for whatever personal reasons, choose to share their essay anonymously to get the feedback they couldn’t otherwise.  They know that they will not earn credit for this essay but they are here to learn, offering their own essay and offering to review other students' essays who may have been likewise unable to submit their piece. 
This is how the forums should be used and are meant to be used.  Of course, where anyone can post anonymously it isn’t long before those who want to abuse the system shall do so.  Hurtful and immature things will begin being posted in response to legitimate posts.  Perhaps not immediately but always inevitably. 
And so it goes.  The forums too quickly degenerate into bullshit. 
One person actually suggested I should post less on the forum so I could get a better grade in my essays.  And Laura Gibbs was told she is not “erudite” which is pretty impressive, to find a troll able to use a word that has more than two syllables, but to suggest a woman who has shared a lot of helpful information, has further proven herself to be more than knowledgeable in the potential of online education, and who is, as we all know, a college professor is not erudite is simply ridiculous.  And I think I’ve initiated about five posts all together.  Two of which were announcements for a study hangout on google+. 
It’s easy to dismiss such childishness for what it is but the implications of such behavior should not be so easily ignored.  In the media we are seeing the consequences of bullying in the educational system and the rally cry seems to be that the schools need to create a safe learning environment for all students.
How can a student feel safe when they are being slammed with ad hominem attacks?  How can a student feel safe when one person calls another “stupid” or a whole thread labeled as stupid or a waste of time or worse?  
I’ve said before that some of the things found in the peer reviews would never ever be tolerated in Dr. Rabkins University of Michigan classroom.  Yet, coursera does nothing to stop it, nothing to address it, and the nonsense perpetuates. 
I’ll take the time to offer some suggestions on what changes could be implemented to stop the abuses but I am frankly too disappointed right now to be bothered.  I have two essays to review and tomorrow I’ll have time to explore the issues with the forums some more.  In the meantime, I think I’m just going to avoid them altogether.  What beneficial content I might find in a thread that is trying to share meaningful discussion will degenerate into a pointless rant or anonymous attack anyway so why bother?